There have been two versions of Georgia this season: asleep and awake.
The “awake” version is pretty easy to recognize. It looks a lot like the national championship team last year. It moves the ball with calm efficiency on offense. It swarms to the ball and stifles opponents on defense. You saw the “awake” Dawgs handle their business against Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Then there are the “asleep” Dawgs. These Dawgs have a propensity to start games slow and struggle in the red zone. You saw them rear their ugly heads when we eked out a win at Missouri, let Kentucky hang around until the end, and allowed Georgia Tech to hold onto the hope of an upset for a full half.
As far as the past goes, asleep or awake no longer matters. Georgia beat Georgia Tech 37-14 Saturday in Athens to move to a perfect 12-0 on the season. It’s the second consecutive year the Dawgs finished the regular season a perfect 12-0, and only the third time in program history. That’s pretty wild, considering I just listed three games in which we played grab-ass, and I could have listed more.
It’s also pretty wild that the unmitigated success that was the regular season could be diminished by showing up asleep in one of the next two or three games. With that perfect regular season, a spot in the College Football Playoff is pretty much guaranteed. But before that, this weekend in Atlanta, we face LSU for the SEC Championship.
Anything other than titles—SEC or national—is falling short. That’s the standard in the Golden Age of Georgia Football. We met that standard last year. We have a chance to exceed it this year, since we lost the SEC Championship to Alabama last time around. The path to both the SEC and national titles appear more manageable this season, but in this moment, our ability to get there feels more questionable.
There’s a different vibe to the Dawgs than there was last year, when we mushed every opponent into oblivion, save Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. This team is much more liable to play to the level of its competition. That means looking just as, if not more, dominant than last year’s team in marquee matchups—such as Tennessee or Oregon—and looking lazy and sloppy against teams we should handle with ease, like Missouri or Georgia Tech.
This LSU team we’ll face in the SEC Championship Game isn’t nearly as good as the Alabama we faced twice last year, but they are a specific kind of dangerous. The Tigers, who also have a penchant to play down to competition, lost to Texas A&M 38-23 to finish the regular season. Any chance they had to beat us and make the playoff went down the drain with that loss.
We want to win the SEC, but we also want to win the natty. For LSU, there is no longer a goal past winning the SEC. Saturday against the Dawgs is their natty. While our players may be caught looking ahead to USC, TCU, Ohio State, Michigan or, god forbid, Alabama, the Tigers will be able to focus on a singular goal: beat Georgia. And new LSU head coach Brian Kelly has shown an ability to play Kirby Smart close, although he never beat Georgia in his two shots at Notre Dame.
These Dawgs have spent this season in a strange limbo. It is clear that we have clunkers in us. There are days when we haven’t shown up with our minds right. Thankfully, we have enough raw talent to make up for that so far. But there’s also a distinct feeling I have that we haven’t yet played our best football, or at least it’s only been seen in glimpses.
With two or three games left to finish this season, the hope has to be that the dividing line between “asleep” and “awake,” between our best and our worst, has been the circumstances. We get up for the games it’s most important to get up for. From here on, that’s every game. So Kirby better get a pot of coffee on and have those Dawgs wide awake when they go to Atlanta.
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